Can Colleges Make the COVID-19 Vaccine Mandatory?

Can Colleges Make the COVID-19 Vaccine Mandatory?
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By Anne Dennon

Published on June 3, 2021

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Last spring, a fast-growing list of colleges announced plans to move online. This spring, a slower-growing number of colleges are announcing COVID-19 vaccination requirements. So far, more than 400 U.S. schools say students coming to campus this fall must be vaccinated.

All Americans aged 12 and older are eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine. College leaders say high vaccination rates among students and employees will help get campus life back to normal, but lawsuits and state lawmakers argue that the new vaccines can't be mandated before being fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Can Colleges Require the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Most U.S. colleges already require vaccines for viral diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella. Some attorneys say universities have the same right to mandate COVID-19 vaccines; however, the experimental vaccines are approved for emergency use only, putting the new mandates in a legal gray zone.

Without approval from the FDA, Virginia Tech officials determined that they couldn't require COVID-19 vaccination. Harvard Law School professor Glenn Cohen counters that COVID-19 tests are approved under the same FDA emergency authorization and have been required by colleges all year without issue.

Federal agencies, including the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, permit employers to require their employees get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Fifteen states so far have signed legislation barring COVID-19 proof of vaccination.

Fifteen states so far — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming — have signed legislation barring COVID-19 proof of vaccination. Indiana's attorney general says state universities may require COVID-19 vaccines but can't force students to provide proof.

All states require colleges to accommodate students who refuse a vaccine for medical reasons. Most states — save for California, Maine, Mississippi, New York, West Virginia, and now Connecticut — also allow exemptions for religious reasons.

While exemptions can be easy to come by, some schools may choose to keep unvaccinated students off campus. At Brown University, for instance, students who refuse the COVID-19 shot must file a petition to study remotely or take a leave of absence in the fall.

What Colleges Require the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Private colleges led the charge on mandating COVID-19 vaccines. Rutgers University, Northeastern University, and several Ivy League institutions — Brown, Cornell, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton — were among the first. Public colleges, including most states' flagship universities, have since followed suit.

Some public college systems, including The Ohio State University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Florida, say they will not or are unlikely to mandate the vaccine. Many institutions that do not plan to mandate COVID-19 vaccines hope to incentivize students instead.

Vaccinated students have been promised prizes, greater access to events, and a pass on the mandatory, asymptomatic COVID-19 testing that most schools plan to continue this fall.

In Ohio, where the public university system has no plans to mandate the vaccine, 12-to-17-year-olds who have received at least one COVID-19 shot are eligible to win full-ride scholarships to any of the system's 14 campuses. New York, meanwhile, is raffling off college scholarships to the City University of New York (CUNY) and State University of New York (SUNY) systems.

The decision to mandate the new vaccine, according to one college leader, "takes away any ambiguity about whether individuals should be vaccinated." While just over half of college-aged Americans were willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine in December, a recent poll found that 85% of prospective college students would attend a college that required inoculation.

Acceptance, bolstered by businesses' and universities' vaccine mandates, has ticked up. Nevertheless, young adults aged 18-29 and Black adults are the least likely to want a COVID-19 vaccine, raising questions about educational access and campus diversity come fall. Black and Hispanic Americans are also less likely than white Americans to have received a COVID-19 shot.

Rare COVID-19 Vaccine Side Effects in Young People

As more young people get vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alerts clinicians of a possible connection between COVID-19 mRNA vaccines and a rare heart problem.

Following "relatively few" reports of adolescents and young adults experiencing myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, about four days after their second dose of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the agency announced plans to investigate and provide guidance.

The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine — a cornerstone of some colleges' vaccination plans — was paused by the U.S. following reports of severe blood clotting. While the CDC once again recommends the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the shot has been suspended in Denmark and is no longer administered to young people in Italy and Belgium.

Similar health issues occurred with the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe, leading the U.K. to advise against administering the shot to people under 30. The CDC continues to strongly recommend COVID-19 vaccines for Americans 12 and older.


Feature Image: FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images

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